Woodland Caribou: going, going … gone?

Updated September 12, 2014

May 5, 2014 BREAKING NEWS: The Mountain Woodland Caribou has just been reclassified   as “endangered” by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) instead of the previous listing of”threatened”. This makes it even more imperative that every step must be taken by Parks Canada to protect this species. To lose it would be a tragedy for the national parks and Canada.

A glimmer of hope?

After six and a half years of procrastination Environment Canada has finally come up with a Recovery Strategy for the Southern Mountain Woodland Caribou ­– listed as ‘threatened’ under the 2002 Species at Risk Act.

It took an impending judicial review to force this federal department to produce a strategy that may still give this species a slim chance of survival. As far as the national parks are concerned, it is now up to Parks Canada to use this long-awaited document to come up with its own recovery plan for the hard-pressed herds within its jurisdiction.

Maybe Parks will have to make some decisions to close areas of critical habitat to human use in winter – despite the lamentations of local residents. The advantages of living in a national park have to be balanced against consideration for the wildlife that also lives here and which basically now has nowhere else to go that offers security in the future.

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For many, the woodland caribou may be the most appealing and captivating of all Jasper’s wildlife. This ethereal member of the deer family flits rarely across our vision but often across our conscience as it struggles to survive in a landscape that once would have ensured its continued existence.

Status in Jasper National Park

Unlike caribou of the Arctic herds that range the far north immensity of the tundra, Jasper’s Southern Mountain Woodland Caribou are found in scattered groups in winter sub-alpine forests and summer alpine meadows. It is the only population that remains on ‘protected’ land year-round.

There are four herds: the A La Peche herd in the northern, relatively undisturbed, part of the park may be just holding its own but the three herds in the southern area where human use is expanding are now in trouble. From a population of around 500 five decades ago their numbers now may be no more than 70. The Tonquin herd near the B.C. border may still have 50 animals, the Brazeau herd in the southeast has 13 and the Maligne herd which only 14 years ago had more than 50 animals is now down to only four.

The Maligne herd is now made up of one female and three bulls. A collared female was killed in an avalanche last winter. A large bull and a female that were with this little group last year are no longer there but a new and younger bull joined the herd. Are they moving between the Tonquin herd with habitat across the Icefields Parkway or  the Brazeau herd further south? Maybe DNA from droppings collected in the area this fall will be able to solve the mystery when it is analysed in the coming months.

Critical habitat

The Southern Mountain caribou are listed as ‘threatened’ under the Species at Risk Act which states: “Canada’s protected areas, especially national parks, are vital to the protection and recovery of species at risk.” Any recovery for the caribou depends on protection of their habitat. Some of their extensive ranges may be critical for them depending on the season and on conditions elsewhere in their habitat. The ‘responsible authority’, Environment Canada, has been stalling on this designation for more than seven years. If demands by commercial interests for future developments are on the table, the needs of the caribou seem to become secondary.

Predation

Wolves will prey on caribou if they can reach them: caribou are well adapted to survive in the deep snow of higher elevations which wolves mostly avoid. However, increased commercial development and human use of sub-alpine and alpine areas offers easy trails and roads for wolves to access caribou habitat.

Increased concern

In the 1980s park wardens and the Canadian Wildlife Service warned Parks that caribou numbers were declining. In March 1992 the JEA urged Parks to establish two ‘caribou conservation areas’ in the Maligne and Tonquin Valleys where special steps could be taken to protect them and called for the 46-km Maligne Road to be closed in winter to deter wolves.

Lack of action

Parks Canada then commissioned two caribou studies (Brown & Kansas 1994 and Thomas 1996) and ignored all their recommendations. Finally the Species at Risk Act in 2002 forced Parks to start taking steps to try to save this now ‘threatened’ species. In November of that year Parks considered a two-year experimental closing of the Maligne Road to determine whether wolves or human activity, or both, were responsible for the population decline but backed off quickly when local commercial interests protested to Ottawa.

Hesitant steps towards protection

In 2005 tracksetting of ski trails in some caribou habitat was discontinued and dogs were banned from the same areas. In 2009 Parks closed the Cavell Road into important winter habitat until February 15th when it reasoned the snow would be hard enough to bear the weight of wolves anyway. This will also apply to some other access routes into the Tonquin Valley. Starting this winter 2013-2014, access will be delayed until February 28th in the A La Peche range and in some parts of the Brazeau range.

Looming threats

As Parks Canada and tourism operators promote their new ‘heritage tourism strategy’ it could be at the expense of one of the most valued components of Canada’s heritage – the woodland caribou

Any steps to protect the Maligne and Tonquin herds are being delayed to accommodate discussions on two proposed development projects. Maligne Tours Ltd. is proposing to construct high-end ‘heritage’ tent cabins for overnight accommodation at Maligne Lake in habitat of the Maligne herd. This may end any hopes of reviving that population.

In 2016 Marmot Basin ski area will present the second part of its Long-Range Plan and, depending on the results of a two-year caribou study in that area, may propose two ski lifts in the Whistlers Creek wilderness area of its lease – part of the Tonquin herd’s range. In the meantime will the back-country ski trail up the creek remain open?  If so, it will attract more skiers than ever – probably followed by more wolves.

Commercial interests now directly lobby an accommodating federal government and Parks Canada is virtually powerless to object. It can only acquiesce to the proponents’ less than stellar ‘environmental assessments’ and try to deflect furious public objections with spin-doctored assurances of useless ‘mitigations’.

Meanwhile this almost mythical creature from Canada’s wilderness-past struggles to survive in its disturbed habitat while, 3000 kms away, Members of Parliament and civil servants decide its fate. If decisions favour increased development then the caribou will gradually fade out and, once gone – will be gone from these mountains forever.